In opinion piece, Maine communities accused of doing too little to combat homelessness
Winter has arrived in Maine at the same time that federal pandemic rental assistance is coming to an end for thousands of Mainers. The situation has highlighted the growing numbers of families across the state without a permanent home — and the limited options available to help them.
Over the past few days, the Lewiston Sun Journal has featured stories of a few of those unhoused residents. And in an opinion piece on Tuesday, executive editor Judy Meyer argues that local communities aren't taking enough action, even as people are sleeping in the woods.
Meyer says Monday night, the Auburn City Council was scheduled to look at whether to direct the planning board to review potential zoning for homeless shelters within the city.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Meyer: And what they decided to do instead was to study it again for five more months. Five more months. That'll put us in May, when the snow will all have melted. People will have suffered for five more months. And what I could not help think about when I read the paper this morning was when these city councilors were discussing this and getting in their cars to go home to their warm houses, the homeless people in Auburn were bunking down in the woods, cold. Maybe they didn't have their dinner. It's like we're living in two separate worlds. And I really struggled to blend those together.
All Things Considered host Robbie Feinberg: You've noted this. But I imagine, you know, if you did talk to local officials, state officials about this, they would say something like, 'This just takes time. This takes a lot of resources.' How would you respond to that if you if you did hear that from officials?
I get it. It does take time. It does take resources. But at the same time, let's just take, for example, the homeless encampment at the Universalist Church in Auburn over the summer. That went on for a period of months before the city took action, saying the church was violating the city ordinances of allowing camping overnight on their lawn. And the city came and said, 'You have a certain number of days to clear this out,' without really offering a solution, just left it up to the church to get rid of the homeless people in their lawn. And so the church did do that. They moved people off, they helped them find a place to stay. Many of them moved into the woods. And you know what? One of those people who had camped over the summer on the lawn died in the woods. So no solution was offered, and a person died. That should not be OK to anybody. And I'm not suggesting that city officials are cold hearted or powerless or not willing to help. But it's just the inertia, it's hurting people.
You note in the editorial that you've heard from nearly 100 people in organizations that want to help out some of the families you've all featured in your reporting. What should people do if they want to help?
If people really want to help with the bigger problem. They can, you know, donate materials and finances to The Store Next Door and to New Beginnings. And they'll help people they know how to put people in touch with folks. We did hear from the Maine Bureau of Veteran Services, they're going to help Enzo get his paperwork sorted out so that he can get access to his veteran services that he's entitled to, but that he can't access because he doesn't have his DD214. You know, because he's homeless, he doesn't have a file cabinet anywhere to store stuff. This is the reality of people who are homeless, they don't have the mechanics to seek the services that they need. And there are service agencies out there that can help them. And clearly there are people in our communities willing and ready to help, which makes me feel so good about the people who live in Lewiston and Auburn.
Yeah, I wonder how you do think about this, where it's obviously wonderful to hear how so many people want to respond and help out so many families. But still that the number of people without housing in our state is just staggering. It is in the thousands. How can we handle this on a huge, state level? Assisting people on this family-by-family or town-by-town basis, how much is that going to even make make a dent in this?
Oh, gosh, I wish I had the answer. I mean, here I am criticizing city officials for not doing enough. But I don't have the answer either. And is opening our wallets and our hearts, is that enough? It might be enough for the next, you know, six weeks with an outpouring of generosity. But is it enough for the long term? I don't know. But I think that rather than looking away from the painful problem that is the homeless population, I think everybody as a human being has an obligation to confront it and really say, 'What can I do personally? Can I serve on a committee? Can I help a social service agency? Can I donate money? Can I offer up an empty apartment I might own for a family for the next two months? What can I do to step up and help this problem?'